23 things you didn’t know about ancient Rome
“Friends, Romans, and cybergeeks, lend me your ears!” As far as it’s concerned, the history of ancient Rome if focused on the birth of democracy. However, Rome was much more than the foundation of democracy, emperors, and the ascent of the Roman gods. They were also a little strange, like, “vote for your horse to the Senate” weird.
Gladiator Sweat was sold at the Coliseum
Having trouble attracting the ladies? How about trouble in the bedroom? Don’t worry, there’s a solution: gladiator sweat. Yup, that’s right. The glistening grime from the rippling pecs of ruthless warriors was a prime aphrodisiac in Ancient Rome. They were Rome’s rock stars: the Mick Jaggers of the ancient world.
After a ruthless battle against their opponent, a long, curved piece of metal (much like a blunt sickle) called a strigil, squeegeed the gladiator’s sweat which was then bottled and sold to fan in the audience. If it wasn’t used as an aphrodisiac, it was used for medicinal purposes that supposedly helped with ailments such as epilepsy. Regardless of the effects, these people were still imbibing perspiration. Eww!
Compared to other gross habits of antiquity, this may not seem too bad, but hey – don’t knock it ’til you try it.
They drank their blood too…
For those who have a weak stomach, the practice might be hard to swallow (ba dum cha!). But the good folks of ancient Rome were a strange breed. Who are we to question the knowledge of Roman doctors? At the time, drinking the blood of versatile warrior such as a gladiator was believed to help with impotence and infertility.
If that wasn’t gag-inducing enough, some believed that eating the liver of a dead gladiator also helped with epilepsy (which we guess was a big problem back then?), a practice that originated from Etruscan (province north of Rome, AKA Tuscany) funeral rites. Although it was influenced religiously, the practice fell out of fashion with the rise of the Roman Republic.
Purple clothing was trending and royal
There’s a reason why purple is known as the color of royalty. It was once very rare and hard to extract, which made it expensive to own. Ancient Romans discovered the color when the empire annexed eastern territories in modern-day Lebanon and Jerusalem. It was in the ancient Phoenician city of Tyre, the birthplace and trade hub of Tyrain purple.
It was made from a species of snail known as Bolinus brandaris. The dye was so rare that it became worth its weight in gold. It took around 250,000 mollusks to make just an ounce of dye. However, the result was worth the wait. The color was lasting and created a hue that was novel and exclusive. Not everyone could own the color.
Tyrian purple only belonged to the wealthy (continued)
To own a spool of purple wool would cost what an average citizen earned in a year. Because of the rarity and the price, it was only accessible to and worn by the wealthy. It was also worn by mystics, who liked that it resembled clotted blood (what is it with the ancient Romans and blood?) which they believed carried divine properties.
The color disappeared for a short while after the fall of the Byzantine Empire. It didn’t become available again until the 1850s when a clumsy college student accidentally discovered a chemical cocktail that could make the color synthetically. Thus, the birth of synthetic dyes, which is why purple isn’t more expensive than other colors today.
Emperor Caligula wanted his horse to be consul
The Roman Empire had its fair share of crazy emperors, one of which was the infamous Caligula. He had a reputation for being one of the most mentally unstable rulers in the ancient Roman world. There are even accounts of the emperor murdering his own family members and executing anyone who dared oppose him. He was also known to converse openly with the moon.
But perhaps what he is best known for is electing his favorite horse, Incitatus, as counsel. Whether or not this actually happened remains the subject of some debate — it was reportedly written about a solid decade after his death. The rumor was that he appointed his horse as counsel because he felt an animal could do a better job than the Senate. Burn!
Romans thought Christians were cannibals
Christianity was booming during the reign of Emperor Tiberius. Scholars believe Christianity became widespread with the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth, who died via crucifixion sometime between 30-33 AD. To be a Christian during the reign of the Roman Empire was chancing a death sentence. Christians believed in only one god, whereas Rome was a polytheistic society.
The persecutions of Christians happened mostly because their beliefs rejected Roman gods, including their emperor (emperors thought they were incarnate gods). As a result, Christians refused to make the required sacrifices. To demonize practitioners and the Christian faith as a whole, the Roman Empire did something nefarious.
Romans thought Christians were cannibals (continued)
To dissuade the empire from entering Christianity or pitying followers, Roman leaders actively defamed Christians by spreading rumors, one of which claimed Christians were cannibals. What? In the New Testament of the Bible, Jesus broke bread and shared wine with his disciples in what would be known as the “Last Supper.” The bread represented the body of Christ and the wine represented his blood.
The citizens of ancient Rome took this ritual literally and denoucned Christian practices. Due to the stigmatization of their faith and the persecutions of those who practiced it, Christians were often scapegoats for catastrophes, such as the Great Fire of Rome in 64 AD.
Nero was the worst Emperor in Ancient Roman history
Speaking of the Great Fire of Rome, Nero was one of the worst emperors in Roman history. Emperor Caligula might have been a bit strange and deranged, but Nero? He was a whole different breed of bad leader. For one, he wasn’t averse to corruption and murder. Not only did he allegedly murder his first wife, but also his second wife, step-brother, and most definitely his mother, Agrippina the Younger.
However, Nero wasn’t always the bad guy. His first five years as emperor were extremely successful and he was considered a generous and benevolent emperor…that is, until economic instability rose and riots broke out. But his popularity nosedived when he decided to invest his time building expensive infrastructure in the city rather than tackling the strife sweeping over the citizens of the Roman empire.
Bathrooms were a public thing
Rome was famous for a multitude of architectural achievements, one of which was their sewer systems. Although ancient Roman civilization found an ingenious way to keep their cities clean, it wasn’t perfect. Firstly, there was no privacy on the golden throne. It was a public space where there were benches with open portholes and citizens sat to do their — ahem — business.
They even had thoughtful conversations with their neighbors as they did so. Though public toilets helped to keep cities clean of waste, the personal cleaning process wasn’t quite as hygienic. They had to share a sponge… and no, they didn’t sanitize it.
Bathrooms were a public thing (continued)
Going to the bathroom where your neighbors can watch you do the do is one thing. But, sharing a “toiletry” is another. Not to get too into the weeds with the details, but the way Romans finished their business was reaching over to a water-filled bin where sticks with a sponge at the end were placed. A citizen would take one, clean as needed, and return it to the designated area.
At the time, the ancients of Rome didn’t know anything about microbes and their dangers to the human body. In fact, their waste management systems weren’t all that perfect. Ridding waste is one thing, but treating it was another. Though effective, their waste management systems were rudimentary compared to today’s.
Rome started out as a trade stop
Believe it or not, Rome wasn’t always a mega-city. In fact, it started out as just a little trading town. Its name before it became Rome was Latium. It sat between two major territories — land belonging to the Etruscans (think Tuscany) and the Greeks. The city was primarily under Etruscan rule until 509 BC. A civil uprise within the city pushed it away from its Etruscan parents only to both develop their own culture while preserving the old.
In fact, many of the activities associated with Rome were inherited from their Etruscan predecessors, namely the Colosseum games, engineering, religion, and architecture. What’s fascinating is that though the Romans were greatly influenced by the Etruscans, we don’t know much about their language and traditions.
Ancient Romans did not throw up to eat more
Despite popular conception, the Romans did not regurgitate their meals just to make room for more. The misinformation began in the not-so-distant past — probably in the early ’60s. The word “vomitorium” was first used in Aldous Huxley’s 1923 comic novel “Antic Hay,” but it wasn’t until writer Lewis Mumford’s 1961 book “The City in History” that readers get an in-depth definition.
The novel describes a vomitorium as a place where the Romans emptied their stomachs to make room for another helping of dinner, but that wasn’t quite true. A vomitorium really referred to a theater passageway that “disgorged” the thespian goers to their seats.
Though hygienic, they didn’t use soap
Of the many architectural achievements the Romans lay claim to, their need to bathe and the creation of the bathhouse is one of the things they are most known for. Aqueducts provided fresh, clean water, a precursor to modern-day running water. The bathhouses, or Thermae, were large facilities that held gymnasiums and three different bathing areas.
Any man (men only) rich, poor, young, or old could attend these baths and use the services provided. Once inside the Thermae, patrons would be ushered into an Apodyterium, the equivalent of what we’d call a locker room. Once the bather took off their clothes, their stuff was watched over a servant or slave. Once undressed, the bathers would enter a gymnasium or a Palaestra.
Though hygienic, they didn’t use soap (continued)
There was a defined process. It was all a part of the experience. In the Palaestra, men could exercise and beef up before getting oiled and taken to the baths. And yes, there’s an order in which you take a bath. First, the Roman would go into a Frigidarium. As the name implies, frigid = cold.
The first baths they visited were in a cold room. Once they plunged in for a quick soak, they would proceed into the Tepidarium, aka the warm room, to recover. Afterward, they would visit the Caldarium, or the hot baths. This lengthy process ended when a servant squeegeed any left-over oil off their skin with a strigil. Once that was over, bathers would repeat the same exact process…but backward.
Roman women had more freedom and privileges than most women in the ancient world
Although many women of the ancient world seldom had the freedoms enjoyed by those in the modern age, Roman women had considerably more rights, statuses, and freedom compared to their ancient world counterparts. Unlike Athenian women, though legally bound to a male-dominated household, Roman women could own and sell property.
Greek women, on the other hand, could own but not sell property. By comparison, Athenian women were expected to stay out of sight and were often confined to their households. Roman women had the luxury of coming and going as they pleased, though they still had to abid by some restrictions. Women were not allowed to enter the court of law, the Senate, or the Forum of Augustus (aka temple for the Roman god, Mars).
Roman Women had more freedom and privileges than most women in the ancient world (Continued)
Women could go to gender-specific bathhouses or enjoy the Roman gardens where statues and a small botanical garden were housed. They could also travel the city without a chaperone, unlike a Grecian woman. Another bonus was that Roman woman could be official citizens. Grecian women were seen as second-class non-citizens.
Although the women had more freedoms than most, it didn’t mean that there weren’t drawbacks. For instance, according to TedEd, girls could be betrothed as early as the age of seven and become wives and mothers by fifteen. Once betrothed, girls were expected to wear the insignia of their engagement (an engagement ring) as well as wear whatever gifts their fiance provided to signal to others that she was spoken for.
Rome was founded by twins
So how did Latium become Rome? Legend has it that twins, Romulus and Remus, were abandoned as infants in the area that would become known as Rome. According to the origin story, the twins were nursed by a she-wolf and discovered by a huntsman. As adults, they argued over who would get to name the newfound city and would-be empire.
The disagreement led to a struggle that climaxed in Romulus killing his brother Remus. He then christened the city Rome. In order to increase Rome’s population, Romulus granted asylum to fugitives and exiles. Writings and illustrations of the myth stem back to the end of the 3rd century BC or the beginning of 4th century BC.
The mortality rate wasn’t as low as once thought
According to BBC History (HistoryExtra) the average life expectancy rate in ancient Rome was about 25 years. That is one of the reasons why young girls were betrothed and married at an early age — time was of the essence. However, that didn’t mean that no one lived into their thirties. The people of Rome were hearty.
It wasn’t like they would blow out their Roman numeral candles (XXV!) and it’s lights out. In fact, if a Roman reached the big 3-0, he/she was more likely to survive well into their golden years. The reason why the life expectancy was so low was that childbirth mortality rates were really high, skewing the average lifespan down considerably. Yikes! Giving birth back in those days was a life-or-death matter a lot of the time. Between religious beliefs and folklore, the chances of mother or child surviving childbirth were pretty grim.
Romans spoke more than one language
As the Roman empire expanded, so did their understanding of the cultures around them. For instance, when Rome conquered Greece in 146 BC, the Roman people fell in love with and adopted their art and the language. The Greeks had a larger vocabulary and alphabet that fascinated the Romans. Speaking Greek, however, was reserved solely to the elite.
It was considered an honorary badge, a symbol of their status in society — the Louis Vuitton bag of the day. As reinforcement of class, Roman of high society would enforce that their children learn both their native language (Latin) and the adopted language. They also “adopted” Grecian art and architecture. While the Romans may have conquered the Greeks, it is often said that the Greeks conquered the Romans culturally.
They stole cultures of the conquered
We say “adopting” conquered cultures loosely. In reality, the vast majority of their beliefs, culture, and heritage was borrowed from a neighbor. For instance, before Rome was the megalithic monstrosity of an empire, it was a part of the Etruscan civilization. It was through their northern neighbors that Romans adopted their preferred style of architecture and their love for gladiatorial fights.
When the Romans conquered Greece, they appropriated their art and sculptures…even their mythology. For instance, the Greek Zeus was taken and reinterpreted into the Roman god Jupiter; the Greek god Poseidon became Neptune. The Romans even absorbed the Greek’s love for chariot racing.
Their aqueducts were genius
Nothing says Rome quite like tossing a coin into the Trevi or any of Rome’s fountains for that matter. Rome may have been known for their military organization and politics, but they were also known for their engineering skills. The aqueduct is hands down one of the greatest architectural achievements of the ancient world.
They were meant to demonstrate Rome’s power and provide water for a city that contained over a million citizens — unheard of numbers in those days. It took 14 years and 14,000 blocks of stone to build and was reinforced with the strongest form of concrete known to this day. The Aqueducts pumped 250 gallons of water to the city of Rome every day.
Unlike other ancient civilizations, Rome was the first mega-city in early civilization. For those of you ready to protest, let’s look into other thriving civilizations of the ancient world. According to Britannica, the Mexican city of Teotihuacan held a population between 125,000-200,000 people. Babylon held a steady population of about 200,000 people between 612 to 400 BC.
Rome, on the other hand, housed between 4-5 million people at its peak…in a single city. That’s the equivalent of Los Angeles’s population today. Rome had its own fire-brigade, police force, postal service, a sewer system that swept away 55 tons of waste a day, and housed apartment-style buildings that were up to six stories tall.
Built the strongest concrete
The mega-city that is ancient Rome withstood the test of time and then some. Today, we are privileged to be able to see the remnants of the Roman Colosseum and its ancient temples. What made the infrastructure of Rome so strong that it could hold up against both mother nature and father time? The answer is that the Romans knew how to make the best concrete in the world.
The key ingredient was volcanic ash. Italy was abundant with neighboring volcanoes, some of which remain active today. Volcanic ash mixed with limestone and seawater made the strongest mortar the world has ever known. Even today, our concrete doesn’t compare to the strength of Roman infrastructure.
They had one of the most efficient military forces in the world
You may have heard of the Roman Phalanx — a mass military formation that was able to cut down an enemy and bring them to their knees. Standing shoulder to shoulder, soldiers would march together several ranks deep. As with many Roman traditions, it was co-opted from another civilization that once dwelled in modern-day Turkey, the Mesopotamians. The first phalanx and was later perfected by the Greeks.
Once the Romans conquered their fifth of the modern world, they also became masters of military strategy. Within the military, soldiers carried a short sword known as a gladius which was their main weapon. They also carried a pilum (essentially a javelin), a shield, helmet, and provisions. Side note: They were taught to expertly kill and fight in precise formation.
There were originally 10 months on the Roman calendar
When looking at a current calendar, you might notice many of the months’ names have Latin roots. Those roots summon the Roman numeral system. For instance September, October, November, and December are numbered months. September is considered the “seventh” month, October the eighth, November the ninth, and December is the tenth.
However, that can’t be right…it’s off by two months. You can thank Julius Caesar and his grand-nephew Augustus for the extra two months. Both emperors were both a bit self-absorbed. In order to support their sense of grandeur, both added the months to the year: July for Julius and August for Augustus.
The last western emperor shared the same name as its founder
Rome was named after it’s supposed founder, Romulus. Coincidentally, it also ended under the rule of an emperor named Romulus. His full name was Romulus Augustulus and he was nicknamed Little Augustus. By the time he ascended to power, Rome was already crumbling. It had been invaded twice and what was left was merely scraps of what is once was.
He only ruled for a blink-and-you-missed-it 10 months. Then he was deposed: Basically, he was kicked out of his position and sent home. It was a fate that every man feared. Rulers would often rather take their own lives or die in combat before being humiliated by their downfall. Brutal.
Emperors poisoned themselves every day
There’s a case to be made that we ingest poison on the regular. Did you know that apple seeds contain small amounts of hydrogen cyanide when ingested? When chewed and digested, the seeds release a plant compound that be lethal in large doses. Don’t worry: You’re not going to foam at the mouth when you bite into your next Macintosh or Granny Smith.
But can you imagine taking poison knowingly? That’s what Mithridates the Great, king of Pontus (120-65 BC) did. He would drink poisonous cocktails he called Mithridatium believing they would boost his immunity against future conspirators. If you think that’s bananas, they also believed the antidote could be extracted from one-horned horses and donkeys reportedly found in India.
They had rules in the bedroom
That’s right. Though women in ancient Rome had more privileges than her contemporaries in other parts of the world, her duties as a married woman were clear. A woman should value modesty and be loyal to her husband. Procreation was her duty. Marriage was an integral part of that, and if a woman strayed from her vows, she was betraying the whole empire.
Men, on the other hand, had the freedom to do as they please, even outside the confines of marriage. The first emperor of Rome did try to enforce some good old fashion marital fidelity by advocating for men to stay faithful to their wives. Of course, this didn’t go to plan and was widely disregarded.
Roman women received education…to a certain extent
Education in the Roman household was somewhat a controversial matter. It was perfectly acceptable for a young girl to be educated to read and write in upper and middle-class families. There are even records of families who hired tutors to teach their daughters advanced grammar and Greek. Doesn’t sound too bad, right?
Though there was an occasional exception, the majority of women didn’t receive this level of education. Some families pursued education simply to groom their daughter for her future husband. According to BBC History, Romans believed too much education could make her into a “pretentious bore.” They also believed intellectual independence was synonymous with sexual promiscuity.
Divorce was common and easy to obtain
Contrary to popular belief, divorce was easy and common in the ancient world of Rome. Unlike today, there was no formal paperwork needed to officiate the end of a marriage. It’s was as easy as a husband or, less frequently, the wife to end the marriage. Though a woman could gain property and other forms of monetary recoup (such as the return of her dowry), she could not have full custody of her children.
Children were seen as the rightful property of the father. They carried his legacy and lineage, and that was something that was held sacred in a patriarchal Roman society. However, there are accounts of fathers allowing their children to live with their mothers after a divorce.